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Managing landscapes for conservation and human health: the role of deer and non-native hedgehogs in tick-borne disease emergence in the Western Isles


Project Description

Changes in biological communities affecting disease emergence is a timely and vital research area. Island systems are particularly prone to abrupt changes in species composition and abundance, and thus provide exceptional research opportunities as well as management challenges when it comes to understanding the interaction between biodiversity and disease risk.

This PhD project investigates this problem on the islands of Uist, in the western Isles of Scotland. Two mammal species, the European hedgehog and red deer, have recently increased in abundance on the Uists. Hedgehogs are not native to the islands but were introduced in the 1970s and have since become widespread. Red deer have also increased markedly in abundance over the past decades. Simultaneously, human cases of Lyme disease, caused by the bite of an infected tick, have increased on the Uists to exceptionally high levels. Deer are known to support high numbers of ticks, but are not able to transmit Borrelia, the bacterial agent causing Lyme disease. Hedgehogs on the other hand can carry high tick burdens and are commonly infected with Borrelia. We therefore hypothesise that the combination high deer and high hedgehog numbers is contributing to an increased risk of Lyme disease in this system.

Our project will test this hypothesis and provide much needed information for management by forging an interdisciplinary team of academic researchers, conservation groups, tick specialists, and public health officials. The project will run over four years and has three major aims: 1) to test how the spatial distribution and abundance of deer relates to the density of questing ticks and Lyme disease risk; 2) to establish the role of introduced hedgehogs as hosts for ticks and tick-borne diseases by live-trapping and sampling hedgehogs for ticks; 3) to incorporate these field data into mathematical models to examine what effect the removal of hedgehogs and deer is predicted to have on Lyme disease risk.

This work represents a unique partnership between the University of Glasgow, Scottish Natural Heritage (industrial CASE partner), the James Hutton Institute, and National Health Services - Western Isles. In addition, we will work closely with local land managers and communities to ensure that they will benefit from this research. Our project will thus be an excellent opportunity to test pertinent ecological hypotheses while also influencing land management decisions with the aim of reducing the risk of tick-borne disease.

Applicants will have a first or upper second class degree in a relevant scientific discipline (e.g. organismal biology, ecology, zoology, veterinary science, parasitology, or related fields). A strong interest in applied and quantitative ecology will be essential, prior experience with ecological field work or mathematical modelling will be considered an advantage.

Please contact Roman Biek () with initial enquiries. Applications should include a cover letter indicating motives and qualifications for undertaking the project and the full contact details of at least two referees.

Initial shortlisting for applications received by Feb 13 but applications will be reviewed until the position is filled.

Start date: Available immediately, October 2019 at the latest.

Funding Notes

This is a fully funded Natural Environment Research Council Industrial CASE PhD studentship. Research Councils UK standard stipend (£14,777 pa + full fees)

UK/EU - the candidate must have been ordinarily resident in the UK throughout the 3-year period preceding the date of application for an award, not wholly or mainly for the purposes of full time education.

References

Millins, C. , Gilbert, L., Medlock, J., Hansford, K., Thompson, D. B.A. and Biek, R. (2017) Effects of conservation management of landscapes and vertebrate communities on Lyme borreliosis risk in the United Kingdom. Phil Trans Royal Soc B: Biol Sci, 372(1722), 20160123.

Viana M, Mancy R, Biek R, Cleaveland S, Cross PC, Lloyd-Smith JO & Haydon DT. (2014) Assembling evidence for identifying reservoirs of infection. Trends Ecol Evol. 29(5):270-279.

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